Not all games need a gimmick, or the most realistic AI, or an award winning story; sometimes a back-to-basics good old-fashioned FPS can be very enjoyable. Quake 4 from id Software (although developed by Raven Software) doesn't try to be clever in any way; it's you against the Strogg, without a gimmick in sight, and it's damn good fun. Some fast old-skool multiplayer action and stunning visuals certainly add to the package, though.
Picking up where Quake 2 left off, the Makron is dead and the marines are working on wiping out the remaining Strogg infantry. Of course, things aren't that simple. The ship you're on is shot from the sky, crashing onto the Strogg home planet, killing many of your comrades, and indicating that the Strogg forces aren't as weak as predicted. As Matthew Kane, the lone hero from Quake 2, and a legend among the military, you are thrown into battle against a very angry Strogg military. You have a number of objectives throughout the game, and there's even a rather significant twist about a third of the way in.
While you take on the Strogg single-handed for a large portion of the game, you're joined by marines at various points - the handiest of which come from 'Rhino Squad'. These guys are the best of the best, elite, hard as nails soldiers, and they'll kill anything that moves. When fighting alongside them they'll really help you out, taking down enemies on their own. Members of other squads aren't quite as skilled, often dying soon after arriving, but this difference in ability is a nice touch. Medics and Tech guys come in handy too, as they're more than happy to top up your health and armour if you need it.
The weapons are the stars of the show, with the selection being a mix from the previous three games in the series. Initially you only have the Blaster, a fairly tame hand-gun that can also fire a charged shot. It's fine for the opening sections and the mounted flashlight helps you through the early 'It's dark and there are monsters everywhere' panic. You soon pick up the Machine gun, and this proves to be the most versatile weapon of the lot. It too has a mounted flashlight, making it ideal for dimly lit rooms of doom, and it also packs a bit more punch than the Blaster, plus a handy zoom function. The trusty Shotgun also comes in handy when you get a little too close for comfort, but that's not all the game has to offer.
There are plenty of fancy weapons that make use of Strogg technology. You'll get hold of a Hyperblaster, Nailgun, Railgun, Lighting gun and a Grey Matter Gun. The Grenade Launcher and Rocket Launcher are also available for your explosive needs. Strangely, hand grenades are totally absent, and this is a little strange at first. You get used to their absence, but if you've been playing another modern FPS (F.E.A.R. for example) you'll be cursing their omission for the first few hours of play. To keep things fresh and to give you more chance against an increasingly strong enemy (in terms of numbers and physical size) tech guys will fit upgrades to each weapon as the game progresses. Some of the best are the homing mod for the Nail Gun, the ammo clip for the Shotgun and the quick-fire and guided missile mod for the Rocket Launcher.
Enemies are pretty varied too, getting tougher and harder as you move through the game. The early guys put up little resistance, with a few shots to the head taking them down, but later enemies, such as the Gladiators and Stream Protectors aren't such a pushover. All the enemies are modelled brilliantly too, with some of the larger foes being a real highlight of the game. Whether it's the elegant Gladiator and his glowing orange shield, or the awesome size of the Harvester, towering over everything, they all look superb, and the huge variety keeps things exciting right through to the end. The AI on show isn't anything special, but it does its job, with the more advanced enemies doing a little more to stay alive than the Strogg marines that you encounter as first line attackers throughout the game.
On the whole, the game is stunning to look at. The Doom 3 Engine has come under some criticism for its dimly lit environments and enclosed spaces, but Quake 4 dispels some of those myths. The game is largely played in poorly lit environments, but it's not to the same level of darkness as Doom 3, with the flashlight only absolutely essential in a few areas of the game. There are also a number of exterior locations that show what the engine is capable of. These sections usually require you to use a vehicle of some sort, and come as a nice change to the moody corridor shooting. It all runs superbly too. Unlike the recently released F.E.A.R. which chugged on high-end systems, Quake 4 has no such problems. It still needs a modern video card to get the most from it, but the payoff is definitely worth it.
Discounting the fairly simple nature of the combat, there are few negatives to the single-player campaign. It is a little short, taking under ten hours to complete, later sections are a little too similar for their own good, and there are a few too many 'Go alone to activate something while the marines stand guard' sections, but on the whole Quake 4 is entertaining for its entirety. The end might be a little disappointing for some, with a rather uninventive final battle that does little more than throw everything but the kitchen sink at you, but at least it goes out with a bang.
Multiplayer has always been a big part of Quake (Quake 3 was multiplayer only) and Quake 4 offers something that is pretty similar to Quake 3. If you're a fan of previous Quake multiplayer offerings or old-style Unreal Tournament you'll find a lot to enjoy here. Modern online first-person shooters move at a pretty slow pace and often have class based gameplay - games like Battlefield even feature extensive vehicle usage. Quake 4 is back to basics stuff, with a fast run speed and a gameplay style that isn't for the fainthearted. If you're after specific differences over Quake 3, the Rocket Launcher is slower and the Railgun has an initial delay before firing, amongst other things.
It's not without its problems though, mainly due to the framerate stuttering when games feature a high number of players. The maximum is set to sixteen, but things start to bog down even before this is reached. Tweaks can be made, but they don't help as much as you'd want them to, making big games a little disappointing. The Maps on offer aren't that great, either, with only the CTF maps really standing out, but this will no doubt change over time as the community produce some better Deathmatch and 1v1 maps. Quake 4 multiplayer certainly isn't easy to get into, and you'll probably get comprehensively beaten early on, but as a skill-based game, few modern shooters come close.
When compared directly to F.E.A.R. - this year's other big FPS - Quake 4 feels a little dated, particularly in terms of AI, but if you play both, you'll see that Quake 4 is a different kind of game. It excels in its variety of enemies and weapons, and the stunning visuals help create a believable and always enjoyable Strogg world. Multiplayer is a throwback to simpler times and will please anyone who isn't so taken with the Battlefields or Counter Strikes of this world. Quake 4 might not be the masterpiece people were hoping for, but it's still one of the better games you'll play this year.